Monthly Archives: May 2011

Lord Rutherford and the Atomic Pudding

By Paul Bowersox

Today is the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Ernest Rutherford’s revolutionary article, “The Scattering of α and β Particles by Matter and the Structure of the Atom,” which appeared in Philosophical Magazine (Series 6 21: 669-688). In the article, Rutherford explained his astonishing and profound discovery that atoms consist of a small and dense nucleus surrounded by electrons.

Rutherford

Peter Caracappa, in his February ANS Nuclear Cafe blog article, The March of Time, Nuclear Wise, marveled at how only 100 years ago, such technologies as airplanes, automobiles, and electric lights already existed, yet there was no such concept as the atomic nucleus. Caracappa commented on how relatively young the fundamental knowledge of nuclear science really is, and how Rutherford’s visionary paper postulated that the atomic nucleus was a centennial worth celebrating.

Let’s take a quick look at how Rutherford proved that atoms consist of a tiny, super-dense nucleus—and how he put to rest the then-popular “plum pudding” model of the atom.

Plum pudding

Thomson

J.J. Thomson in 1897 discovered that all atoms contain far smaller, fundamental building block particles eventually known as electrons. To account for the atom’s overall neutral charge, in Thomson’s model of the atom (published in March 1904 in Philosophical Magazine), the atom’s electrons were embedded in a uniform “soup” of opposite charges throughout the volume of the atom—like negatively-charged plums in a positively-charged plum pudding.

Gold foil experiment

Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford in 1909, directed a beam of alpha particles (helium nuclei) onto sheets of gold foil only a few atoms thick. The researchers expected that these alpha particles would pass through the dilute soup of the plum pudding gold atoms, with at most some minor deflections, perhaps of a few degrees. This was expected because the positive charge of the gold atom was supposedly diluted, spreading throughout the entire volume of the atom.

Instead, the researchers found alarming results. Some alpha particles were deflected at very large angles—including almost directly backward—while most alpha particles passed straight through. This kind of result was not expected from any theory of matter at the time. Rutherford was flabbergasted:

“It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-in. shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you. On consideration, I realized that this scattering backward must be the result of a single collision, and when I made calculations I saw that it was impossible to get anything of that order of magnitude unless you took a system in which the greater part of the mass of the atom was concentrated in a minute nucleus. It was then that I had the idea of an atom with a minute massive center, carrying a charge.”

Rutherford’s nuclear model of the atom

Rutherford interpreted the gold foil experiment results in his May 1911 Philosophical Magazine article—and the plum pudding model of the atom was destined for the dustbin. No soup of positive charge across a whole atom could carry the concentrated charge needed to deflect alpha particles so strongly. Instead, Rutherford reasoned that much of the atom’s charge and most of its mass were concentrated into a very small central region—later to be called the nucleus—surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

Rutherford calculated that the central charge at the center of the gold atoms must be, at most, perhaps 1/3000 the diameter of the entire atom—not at all resembling lumps of electrons spread among a positively-charged atomic soup. When a positive alpha particle approached close enough to a nucleus, it was repelled strongly and rebounded at a high angle—and since most of the atom was empty space, most of the alpha particles simply passed through undisturbed.

Rutherford is now widely known as the “father of nuclear physics” for discovering the atomic nucleus, for being the first to split the atom, and for many other nuclear discoveries. On this centennial of his replacing the plum pudding atomic model with a modern nuclear model, let us feast on a delicious slice of plum pudding, which serves as dessert much better than it does as atomic structure.

_______________________________

 

Bowersox

Paul Bowersox prefers cake, and occasionally pie, and is a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

 

54th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers

There is more going on in the world of nuclear energy than the Fukushima crisis

EBR 1 chalkboard_thumb[3]

The first known nuclear energy blog entry - chalk talk in Idaho at EBR-1.

This week there is continuing news from Fukushima, but there are also a diverse set of posts on nuclear energy topics. The 54th Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers is online now at Idaho Samizdat.

If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it. Contrary to what the anti-nuclear crowd would like you to believe, the wheels have not come off the renaissance.

Past editions of the Carnival have been hosted at NEI Nuclear Notes, ANS Nuclear Cafe, CoolHandNuke, NuclearGreen, as well as several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation. This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

# # #

 

Discount registration for ANS conference available through June 3

The American Nuclear Society’s 2011 Annual Conference—Seizing the Opportunity: Nuclear’s Bright Future—will take place June 26-30 in Hollywood, Fla. Discount registration is available through June 3.

The preliminary meeting program is available at the ANS website. Online registration and meeting sponsor information is also available at the same link.

Fitting wind onto the electricity grid (part 2)

By Ulrich Decher

In a previous article from January—Fitting Wind onto the Electricity Grid—I presented the advantages and disadvantages of promoting wind power. The conclusion was that there were some advantages, but they were far outweighed by the disadvantages. The reason for having so many wind turbines on the grid is, I said, that it is motivated by politics, not by environmental or economic needs. In this article, I will further explore the reasons why wind turbines are being placed on the grid. In order to do that, I take a look at the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), a federal agency based in the Pacific Northwest, and the California Independent System Operator (ISO) balancing system.

Detailed information is readily available on these two electricity distribution systems, and there is a heavy emphasis on increasing wind generation for both of these grids.

Bonneville Power Administration

The BPA describes placing wind on the grid as a “good thing” for the region. I decided to investigate this value judgment: Is it really a “good thing,” and for whom is it good?

The BPA grid is run by the Department of Energy. The BPA Corporate Strategy Statement states that the BPA “markets the power from federal dams within the constraints and requirements for other river purposes,” which are:

  • Flood control
  • Protection of fish under the Endangered Species Act
  • Compliance with the Clean Water Act
  • Other requirements (including irrigation, navigation, and water supply)

These requirements for the management of the federal dams “take precedence over power production,” according to the BPA.

The real time power output of the BPA grid shows that hydro power normally far exceeds the grid demand, which means that the BPA is a net exporter of electricity to neighboring grids in Washington, Oregon, and California. The water runoff from the Columbia River Basin, however, is seasonal and highly variable, as low as 396 cubic meters per second to as high as 15,575 cubic meters per second. It is therefore necessary to back up the hydro power in order to create a stable electricity supply on the grid.

Conventional power sources such as fossil and nuclear are necessary when hydro power is not available. Note that wind turbines are not useful for this purpose since they are intermittent and cannot be turned on when needed.

One of the problems faced by the BPA is that during the spring and with ample runoff, a sufficient amount of water needs to pass through the hydro turbines to prevent excess spill, which has been shown to be harmful to fish populations that are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Extraordinary measures are taken during these periods to reduce the power generation from sources other than hydro, including reducing the output from Energy Northwest’s Columbia nuclear power plant, in Richland, Wash.

But the electricity generated by wind turbines is required to be accepted on the grid, and this exacerbates the problem. As a result, the BPA is now considering requiring the reduction of wind power as a last resort. But the wind industry is saying that it should be compensated for the lost revenue—in other words, it should be compensated even when the turbines are not producing power.

So, exactly, what is the “good thing” of having so much wind on the BPA grid?

Does wind on the grid increase the power capacity of the grid?

No, the power capacity of the BPA is determined by the power capacity of the hydro turbines and the conventional power plants that can be turned on during the peaks of the electricity demand. When wind is added to the grid, there is no power capability addition, since it cannot be guaranteed that the wind would blow when the power is needed to meet the peak load.

Does wind on the grid increase reliability of the grid?

No, it does not. Fortunately, the BPA normally has ample hydro power that can be adjusted rapidly to compensate for wind power variations. Notice (below) the frequent fluctuations in the hydro power (blue) during April to compensate for the wind power (green), whereas the load (red) is fairly smooth and more predictable. As more wind is added, however, the requirement for hydro to compensate for wind variations will increase. The power-dispatching requirements and the power surges on the transmission lines may get too severe.

Click to Enlarge

During periods of low hydro power, the wind power variation would need to be accommodated by power variations of the conventional fossil and nuclear plants. These generators are not as responsive to rapid variations as hydro turbines.

Some advocates of wind power are counting on better weather predictions to help reduce the impact of the chaotic nature of wind. I respectfully disagree. Weather predictions are currently adequate to predict general wind conditions, but they will never be able to predict the timing and strength of wind gusts.

Does wind on the grid provide any environmental benefit?

No, adding wind on the BPA grid requires adjusting hydro power to compensate for the wind power. Both wind and hydro are emission free, so there is no environmental benefit for that trade off.

In addition, adding wind turbines throughout the BPA service region has a significant land-use and visual impact. This is a high environmental price to pay when the return is the lack of any significant power capability benefit.

Finally, for electricity grids that do not have ample hydro, adding wind also requires adding natural gas, which is not emission free.

Does wind on the grid provide any cost benefit?

No, but other power plants save fuel when the wind turbines are operating. Remember, however, that wind turbines do not replace any other power plant, because they must be backed up by another generator when the wind is not blowing. The cost benefit depends on the cost of the fuel saved. An analysis I performed in my previous article on wind power showed that there is no benefit in most cases.

Does wind on the grid help keep the hydro reservoirs full?

Yes, wind turbines can be used for that purpose. If this, however, is the only benefit of having wind turbines on the grid, should we not allow other power sources to compete on an equal basis? Perhaps other power sources can do it more cheaply and not require feed-in tariffs.

As stated in the BPA Corporate Strategy statement, there has been remarkable growth of wind-generated electricity on the BPA grid. There is currently about 3000 MWe wind capacity on the grid, with another 3000 MWe planned by 2013. This is not so remarkable, however, when one realizes that it is a mandated market and a fully subsidized market. Any product would thrive in such an economic environment.

California ISO balancing system

The California ISO balancing system has recently published real-time generation data similar to that available on the BPA grid. One Web site for the ISO shows the total generation for the current day updated every 10 minutes. This site compares the actual power to the power projection for the current day. Also shown is the wind and solar generation. Notice that a separate graph is required to show the wind and solar contributions, since these inputs are so small that they would not be visible on the first graph.

Another ISO Web site shows the generation results for the previous day. Geothermal is a major renewable contribution in California, generating about 1000 MWe, and is a relatively constant power source during the day. Unfortunately, the opportunity to expand this energy source is limited.

California has recently adopted a 33-percent renewable energy portfolio by 2020 and is relying on wind turbines to generate much of the additional renewable energy.

The electricity production in California in 2009 is shown in the following table:

The renewables sources in California currently contribute 13.9 percent of total electricity production for in-state generation, but only 11.6 percent of the total when imports are included. (The “unspecified” row is as shown in the table because California is currently negotiating with neighboring states to determine how to credit renewable electricity that is generated in other states.)

One thing to note is that California is an importer of electricity, unlike the BPA, which normally exports a large amount of hydro power. This means that California is not in full control of its renewable portfolio, but must seek the help of other states, many of which have their own renewable portfolios to meet.

If California is counting on imported energy credits to help meet its renewable portfolio, consumers in neighboring states should ensure that California is legally required to pay for a significant portion of any new transmission-and-distribution equipment costs that are incurred to accommodate renewable power generation.

The problem with the California renewable goal is that most of the renewable sources—such as biomass, geothermal, and small hydro—cannot be expanded by a significant amount. This leaves the intermittent sources of solar and wind to do the job.

If California is to meet its goal of 33-percent renewables by 2020 and if it is relying on the intermittent sources of solar and wind to accomplish this goal,  these two sources must increase from their 2009 contribution of 3 percent (2.7 percent for wind and 0.3 percent for solar). The renewable gap is currently 21.4 percent (33 percent – 11.6 percent), so the intermittent source must increase by a factor of about seven (7 = 21.4 percent/3 percent). This assumes that the energy demand in 2020 is equal to the demand in 2009. If demand grows, as is likely, this factor would be even higher.

It is highly improbable that the California renewable portfolio goal will be accomplished. While it is possible to build more wind turbines and solar panels, there is a limit to the amount of electricity that can be placed on the grid from intermittent sources. This limit will be reached before California gets near its 33-percent renewable goal.

The more likely result of this renewable portfolio will be an increase in the use of natural gas for the production of electricity, which is already happening in California. Natural gas produced 42 percent of the state’s electricity in 2009, and it will likely increase under current policies. If natural gas displaces other conventional electricity generators, consumers of electricity should hope that the price of natural gas remains low. This has not been the case in the recent past.

Click to Enlarge

Placing wind on the grid is a good thing for whom?

Wellinghoff

The conclusion of this review is that placing wind on the grid is not a very “good thing” for consumers or the environment. It is, however, heavily entrenched in today’s politics. The following is a quote from Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulating Commission, when interviewed by a reporter from The Oregonian newspaper:

Q: We’re already seeing rate and bill increases from transmission and renewable projects being built in this region.

A: You’ll see those rate increases more in the Northwest because you’ve traditionally had extremely low rates for energy, so the marginal cost for you is going to be higher. That should give you even more impetus to look toward those opportunities to manage the overall bill and not be concerned about the increase in the rate.

Wellinghoff’s honesty is appreciated, but what he is saying is that electricity consumers in the Northwest have had it too good for too long with low electricity rates. The rates are going up because of the funds required for renewables projects (such as new transmission lines)—but consumers in the Northwest should not worry about higher rates!

That is a remarkable statement coming from the head of a federal agency whose purpose is to represent the interests of consumers. The best “opportunities to manage the overall bill” is to stop giving preference to particular producers of electricity and to allow a competitive market for all sources. This is how a deregulated electricity market was supposed work. It certainly doesn’t work for markets that give preference to renewable energy sources.

____________________________________________________

Decher

Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

 

How much can change in a couple of months?

By Peter Caracappa

The basic thesis of a post I wrote in January was that the Chernobyl accident was far enough in the past that the younger generation in the nuclear industry did not have the first-hand memories of the experience, and therefore lacked some of the emotional understanding of the event. I suggested that there should be a conscious effort to pass on how Chernobyl and Three Mile Island affected the culture of the industry.

Fukushima was not what I had in mind.

Nevertheless, regardless of the differences between the current events and those of the past, the name Fukushima is likely to take its place along side Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and—for those who are really paying attention—Mayak and Windscale. As the conditions at the Fukushima plant continue to be sorted out, there is apt to be some temperance of the enthusiasm for the anticipated growth in nuclear power generation. This kind of impact in the short term is understandable, and maybe even appropriate. On the other hand, the long-term impacts on the industry are far less certain, but there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic.

The future of student enrollments

One of the most important of the long-term impacts could be what happens to the student enrollments that have fueled the growth in the population and enthusiasm of nuclear’s young generation. My admittedly informal and unscientific survey of current students has shown no decrease in the zeal for nuclear engineering. On the contrary, I have seen an eagerness to learn about and from the Fukushima accident and use those lessons to improve the designs for new nuclear reactors, which they don’t doubt for a minute are coming. Some students that are graduating just this month have expressed some trepidation about what it all means for the immediate job prospects and promotion opportunities, but none are seriously questioning their career choices.

Of course, the true test will be what happens to enrollments in nuclear engineering in 2–5 years, when students currently in high school and middle school start beginning to consider possible fields of study. Will more of them write off nuclear engineering out of hand because of the images they saw on TV when they were 15? And, if the resurgence of nuclear power continues as planned, will this mean a new wave of workforce shortages to overcome?

Outreach to high school and college students cannot fall by the wayside. Before the accident, there was some suggestion that universities, government, and industry may be able to afford to start scaling back some of the programs that have encouraged the rise in student populations. I don’t pretend to know what will happen more than anyone else, but I believe that we must be prepared to bridge the potential gap in enthusiasm of the incoming college students of the next few years.

There is still plenty to do!

____________________

Caracappa

Peter Caracappa is a clinical assistant professor and radiation safety officer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York State. He was a founding executive committee member of the Young Members Group and currently serves as its chair. He is a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Zero or net-zero?

By Meredith Angwin

It’s not as much fun as you might think to stand in front of an auditorium of young people, speaking about energy, and knowing that they simply do not believe you. No, it wasn’t that they didn’t believe me about nuclear safety—although that may also have been the case—it’s that they didn’t believe me about the role of renewables. Specifically, they didn’t understand the difference between a net-zero energy facility and a zero-use energy facility.

The background

About two weeks ago, I spoke at  an assembly at Putney School, an “alternative” private high-school attended both by boarding students and day students. The school is located in Putney, Vt., the hometown of the state’s governor, Peter Shumlin. Most of the faculty and students at the school oppose the relicensing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, so it was a tough crowd.

The crowd was made even tougher by the fact that the president of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an antinuclear organization, had spoken to the assembly the week before. He had refused to debate me in an assembly, as Howard Shaffer described in his  recent View from Vermont post on this blog.

My problem at Putney, however, wasn’t with what I said about nuclear power. Instead, the problem was about what I said about renewables.

Renewables

Whenever I discuss renewables, I say that I am in favor of them (which is true), but that they have several major drawbacks.

Renewables take up a lot of space—I usually illustrate this with a picture of Vermont Yankee, which is located next to Vernon Dam. In my picture, both facilities are visible:

Vernon Dam, with the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in the background.

I point out that Vermont Yankee makes 620 megawatts of electricity for 90 percent of the time, and that Vernon Dam makes 34 MW for 50 percent of the time. To replace Vermont Yankee with hydro power, there would have to be  20 to 30 dams the size of Vernon Dam. This would be clearly impossible to do in Vermont. (Vernon Dam is the one of the largest local dams on the Connecticut River, which is the largest river in this area.)

I also point out that solar photovoltaic and wind energy are “non-dispatchable” renewables. That means that these technologies start when they want to start, and they quit when they want to quit. No human can command the sun and the wind. Germany and Denmark have invested heavily in renewables, but both countries have found that their electricity grids becomes destabilized if they try to put more than 20 percent of these non-dispatchable renewables on them. With this constraint, the question becomes: What do we want for the other 80 percent of our electricity needs? Fossil, big hydro, or nuclear?

Many of the students at Putney School seem to think that we can have 100-percent solar—after all, they have a solar-powered fieldhouse.

The Putney fieldhouse

Putney School is justifiably proud of its net-zero fieldhouse. This super-insulated facility, with a solar orchard outside, cost more than $5 million, according to the “fundraising” tab on the fieldhouse Web site.

Putney fieldhouse

The Putney students simply didn’t believe me when I spoke about the 20-percent non-dispatchable renewables. The students didn’t understand the net-zero concept. I think it is important for nuclear power that people understand net-metering and net-zero.

Net-zero and the ghost batteries of Putney School

The Putney fieldhouse makes more energy than it uses when the sun is shining brightly. It sells the excess energy to the grid. When the sun is not shining, it buys energy from the grid, but buys only the amount it has sold before. In its interactions with the grid, the fieldhouse is net-zero in electricity use. (Or, at least, designed to be net-zero.)

When I talked about the limits of renewables, however, I received the following questions:

Our field house is 100-percent solar! How can you say we can only use 20-percent solar?”

“There’s a village in Spain that is 100-percent solar!  I read about it. That 20 percent makes no sense at all.”

I felt truly uncomfortable  standing in front of a large auditorium explaining that their terrific fieldhouse (and the village in Spain) are net-zero, not zero electricity use. The grid, with its baseload and dispatchable power, is backing up the solar. That fieldhouse couldn’t operate day and night without the grid standing behind it.

As I spoke, I could feel a wave of hostility moving toward me, and there was little I could do against it, except to keep telling the truth.

Later, at lunch, the physics teacher thanked me for my explanation of net-zero during the assembly. He told me that many students at Putney think that there is a bank of batteries under the floor of the fieldhouse, even though in fact there is no such thing. Still, the person who gave us the fieldhouse tour told us that “now we are standing above the batteries in the basement.” If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought he was serious. The tour of the fieldhouse occurred, unfortunately, after I gave my talk.

How’s net-zero working?

I wanted to know how the fieldhouse was working, and it was not easy to find out. I didn’t blame the students for being confused about the whole business.

For example, if you take the virtual tour at the Putney Fieldhouse site, it shows a bank of readouts in the fieldhouse that show energy use:

In the actual fieldhouse,  however, those readouts are not working. There are two other ways to find out the information, but you have to look for it.

I logged into the Energy Use tab using “student” as username and password (as instructed). I saw a set of readouts, but the information on the site was not very clear to me. I had better luck visiting the Web site of Maclay Architects, designers of the Putney fieldhouse. I logged into Putney Fieldhouse information on the architect’s site—and once again signed in as “student-student” (link is near the bottom of the page). In this case, I reached a readout with clearer labeling. Two electricity usage readings are “Import from Grid at 75,000 kWh” and “Export to Grid at 55,000 kWh”. Net zero?

Conclusion: For energy choices, people must know the facts, and sometimes it is hard to find them. Solar facilities are usually connected to the grid. The grid itself cannot be 100-percent solar or intermittent power, although any facility can be net 100-percent solar, with luck. I wish the Putney students knew that there are no batteries in the basement, and that the grid is the backup.

If you think talking about nuclear is hard, try talking about solar!

____________________________________________________

 

Angwin

Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents. Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.

Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

53rd Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers

The 53rd Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is up at CoolHandNuke. The carnival features blog posts from the leading U.S. nuclear bloggers and is a roundup of featured content from them.

This week there is continuing news from Fukushima, but there are also a diverse set of posts on nuclear energy topics. If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it. Contrary to what the anti-nuclear crowd would like you to believe, the wheels have not come off the renaissance.

Past editions have been hosted at NEI Nuclear Notes, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NuclearGreen, and, Idaho Samizdat, as well as several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation. This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival. # # #

Another TAFF video: “The Money Mobile”

Time again for another video from the Texas Atomic Film Festival. The video, Money Mobile Goes Nuclear, was the winner at the 2010 festival in the Best Editing category.

TAFF is hosted by the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. The video is a takeoff on TV’s “Cash Cab” program, in which the taxi driver asks unsuspecting passengers questions about general subjects for a chance to win cash prizes.

TAFF films are produced by students from UT–Austin as well as distance-learning students from Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa. The goal is to allow students to communicate technical subjects by using digital movie content. For more information on TAFF, please contact UT–Austin’s Juan Garcia.

The full TAFF playlist can be found on YouTube at the official Cockrell School TAFF Channel.  The Cockrell School also has other videos of interest featured on YouTube.

The ANS Nuclear Cafe will be featuring films from TAFF in the days ahead.

Advice to the Blue Ribbon Commission

The nation’s nuclear energy bloggers have their say about what to do with used fuel

Editor: Dan Yurman

On May 13, 2011, the Department of Energy’s Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) issued draft recommendations based on the work of three subcommittees. The long-awaited policy prescriptions are intended to establish a long-term framework for managing used nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear reactors.

Because of the significance of the used fuel issue, ANS Nuclear Cafe asked some of North America’s leading nuclear energy bloggers to comment on the BRC’s proposed solutions.

Our intent in publishing these voices from the Internet is to bring some waves of independent thinking to the shores of conventional wisdom. Of course, at any beach the pattern of some waves do overlap, but others reach the tidal zone entirely in their own time.

A typical configuration for a used fuel canister (Source: World Nuclear Association)

We did not ask for a consensus, or approval, or disapproval of the BRC’s work. Each blogger was asked to provide one short recommendation. Here are 12 of them for your review.

Use the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by Gwyneth Cravens

The EPA-certified Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has been successfully storing transuranic defense waste since 1999 deep in a New Mexican salt bed that has been geologically stable for 230 million years and will be for millions more. Thousands of studies conducted by many scientific disciplines determined that a breach of the repository leading to radioactive release is highly unlikely.

Originally the plant was to accept used commercial nuclear fuel as well, but for bureaucratic reasons a search for a separate location ensued. For political reasons and despite billions spent and decades elapsed, there’s still no central repository.

The residents around WIPP welcome an interim storage and reprocessing site for used fuel using the vast salt bed. The research and risk assessment have already been done. The commercial fuel retains 95 percent of its energy and can and should be recycled.

Gwyneth Cravens http://cravenspowertosavetheworld.com/

_______

It isn’t waste. It’s energy. Use it. by Jack Gamble

What some call waste, I call an invaluable energy resource. To dispose of this fuel would be no different than tossing solid gold in the trash. Those used fuel rods still contain 96 percent of the original energy. Both mixed oxide fuel for conventional reactors and uranium-238 in breeder reactors can allow us to extract this vast quantity of energy.

This is not a theoretical technology or something from science fiction. This is technology that was developed in America, by Americans, decades ago.

Our current policy and that proposed by the Blue Ribbon Commission takes an invaluable national resource and makes it a liability. It’s time our leaders stop allowing fear-induced myths about nuclear power to dictate national energy policy. We should instead put this fuel to use driving our economy, protecting our environment, and ensuring that our nation is safe from the whims of tyrants ruling energy-exporting states.

Jack Gamble http://www.nuclearfissionary.com

_______

A disappointment given the talent assigned to the task by Meredith Angwin

The Blue Ribbon Commission mission was to provide recommendations for a “safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel.” The commission’s 15 members included a nuclear engineer and a physicist. Others were senators, presidents of companies, and a few environmental policy people. In other words, the BRC was staffed mostly with policy wonks, not scientists.

This choice of members delighted me. It seemed to acknowledge that the decision would rest on policy considerations, not technical issues. The technical problems have already been solved: recycling in France and storage in New Mexico.

But no! The BRC punted on policy. It recommended “interim” storage while the (supposed) technical problems undergo further study. The BRC handed nuclear opponents another hammer of “nobody knows what to do with this stuff.” We can reprocess now. We should reprocess now. We needed a little courage in our commission.

Meredith Angwin http://yesvy.blogspot.com/

_______

Recycle fuel, don’t throw it away by Steve Aplin

For decades, America has debated what to do with the used fuel from its nuclear reactors. Used fuel still contains enormous amounts of energy—energy that could provide clean, safe, cheap electricity to millions of American homes. Shouldn’t used fuel be recycled?

True, unrecycled used fuel poses no danger to anyone and occupies only a tiny amount of space. And true, there is no real urgency to decide right this minute what to do with it.

Technology exists, however, that can recycle used nuclear fuel. Numerous countries—France, Belgium, Japan, Britain, Switzerland, and others—already enjoy the benefits of cheap electricity from recycled nuclear fuel. Recycling is always a sensible way to manage natural resources.

And, since nuclear recycling also presents a way to reduce dependence on increasingly expensive, carbon-heavy fossil fuels, it is an obvious, large-scale answer to America’s energy problems. It is time for America to stop debating and start recycling.

 

Steve Aplin http://canadianenergyissues.com/

_______

Kicking the can down the road by Jarret Adams

We must think beyond just temporary storage and permanent disposal—recycling is an essential part of building a more sustainable fuel cycle. Interim storage facilities are only part of the solution. Without a complete strategy for managing the nation’s used fuel, we are only “kicking the can down the road.”

After four decades, the United States continues to struggle with the question of “is used nuclear fuel a resource or a waste?” Recycling is a proven solution that conserves natural resources, simplifies waste management, and is cost competitive. In short, recycling has demonstrated that used fuel is indeed a resource.

Deployment of recycling technology would increase energy security while creating tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in regional investment. Consequently, development of a recycling center could help increase public support for a proposed interim used fuel storage facility. Read more about Areva’s vision for recycling here.

Jarret Adams http://us.arevablog.com/

_______

We need bold thinking, not old thinking by Charles Barton

We need to boldly go into the uncharted energy future where no one has gone before. Climate scientists tell us that about 70 percent of our energy resources, currently derived from fossil fuels, need to find substitutes. For many current energy uses—including surface, air, and sea transportation; industrial process heat; and peak, backup, and load following electricity—renewable substitution seems unlikely, and current nuclear technology is too costly and inefficient. Disruptive innovation and disruptive technology are called for.

Recently, the Reactor & Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission wrote, “No currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technologies, including current or potential reprocess or recycle technologies, have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decade.”

No blue ribbon for the commission. No ribbon at all. Look again.

Charles Barton http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com

_______

The BRC is not serious about the future of nuclear energy by Cheryl Rofer

Are we serious about nuclear energy? It’s 20 percent of the electrical energy supply in the United States and likely to become a larger source in the future, when we will need more electrical energy and to decrease the carbon dioxide emissions that go along with it.

If we’re serious, we need to deal with the whole fuel cycle, including used fuel. There are a couple of ways to do this: either put the used fuel elements out of sight or rework them to recover usable materials.

Politicians need to recognize this and think more broadly than Not In My Backyard. The nuclear industry needs to recognize this and to think more broadly than this quarter’s profits. A repository may be the answer. Improved methods of reprocessing may be the answer. Kicking the can down the road is not the answer.

Cheryl Rofer http://phronesisaical.blogspot.com/

_______

No rush to recycling needed by Rod Adams

I am a lifelong procrastinator who lives by the motto, “Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow and never do at all what you can put off indefinitely.” I am thus happy to see that the BRC has apparently reached the conclusion that America does not have a nuclear waste crisis. Instead, we have a used nuclear fuel resource opportunity.

Interim storage at regional sites enables eventual recycling, but there is no rush to pick a technology. The future resource does not take up much space, it has never hurt anyone, and taking care of it costs a relatively tiny amount of money compared with the benefits that the first time use of the fuel provided. Do customers notice a 1 mill per kilowatt-hour fee?

The BRC recommends removing deadlines, opening up the field of possibilities, and taking our time. Those are good ideas.

Rod Adams http://atomicinsights.com/

_______

A Gentleman’s “C” by Steve Skutnik

In nuclear waste management, three C’s matter: credibility, consent, and consensus. Unfortunately, the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendation for interim storage fails on all counts.

For nuclear energy to gain widespread acceptance, the public must believe a credible plan exists to manage waste. Many are rightly skeptical of engineering on million-year timescales—the kind required if we simply dispose of used fuel intact. To the public, our current policy lacks credibility, yet the BRC plan does little to resolve this.

Consent is vital to any future repository, which is needed even if reprocessing is adopted. Yucca Mountain failed by being forced upon residents through legislative fiat, yet consent-based repository projects have been successful both here and abroad.

Finally, waste management policy must represent a broad social consensus. The fragility of the current policy was evident in how easily it was derailed by political maneuvering. Interim storage simply punts on this issue, leaving it still unresolved.

Steve Skutnik http://neutroneconomy.blogspot.com/

_______

Molten salt reactor has a role by Rick Maltese

First, short-term storage is all that is needed. And second, it is necessary to change the way the Nuclear Regulatory Commission assists with innovation and self-education.

Long-term storage should not be on the table for anything other than decommissioned materials that cannot be reused and the minute quantities of waste that cannot be made useful after reprocessing.

Technology is available to deal with reprocessing within the lifetime of useable recyclable waste. Of all fourth generation reactors, the molten salt reactor family is a technology most likely to occur in the near future. Objections to the liquid fluoride thorium reactor variant of the thorium molten salt reactor and the liquid chloride fast reactor and the denatured molten salt reactor all have modern solutions achievable within 10 years.

Lastly, engineers and academics need to play a larger role in the consultation process for allowing new nuclear reactor designs. Business models are secondary when the human race is at stake.

Rick Maltese http://deregulatetheatom.com

_______

Use fast reactors by Robert Steinhaus

If the United States hopes to lead the world in nuclear technology and continue to guide the rest of the world in peaceful uses of nuclear power, it is important that it continue to innovate and pioneer handling of nuclear waste. One pass through fuel utilization (< 1 percent of the uranium fuel burned) is wasteful.

The United States should lead in the development of deep burn molten salt reactors and transuranic fueled reactors such as the Russian MOSART (a liquid salt fuel reactor concept). This technology on the near horizon combines partitioning of the components of used nuclear fuel with transmutation and incineration of separated radiotoxic nuclides into shorter-lived or even stable elements.

The effect of developing this technology:

  • Separation of fissionable materials should lead to production of fuels usable in advanced molten salt reactors.
  • Transmutation of radionuclides extracted from used fuel need be sequestered for only a period of a few hundred years.

The pen is no mightier than the engineering compromises and tradeoffs that designed it.

Robert Steinhaus (Mr. Steinhaus is an active participant in online discussion forums about nuclear energy.)

_______

Revive the fast flux reactor by Carl Holder

The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF), at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site in Washington State, can be reactivated with a stroke of President Obama’s pen. The administration’s political party controls the region, and the DOE has stated a need for fast reactor R&D capability.

There was an unsuccessful rush to decommission this unique 400-MWt sodium-cooled fast reactor—the DOE’s newest and most sophisticated test reactor, but Benton County (in Washington State) and many others fought to maintain the now deactivated FFTF in cold stand-by.

A presidential order can deliver nuclear R&D credibility and reinstate fast neutron testing capability—now lost—to the United States. The DOE signed a memorandum of understanding with France and Japan to advance sodium fast reactor R&D. What does the United States bring? Russia, China, and India are rapidly moving to dominate this advanced nuclear technology sector. Without test reactor capability, the United States will neither be in position to influence advanced nuclear international developments nor certify new reactor fuel designs.

Carl Holder http://usa-cargo.info

_______

Closing thoughts

While many are disappointed that the BRC endorsed the conventional wisdom about used fuel, there is one thing that is clear. The development of an independent federal corporation and an interim storage site with dry casks is a major contracting opportunity for engineering procurement construction (EPC) firms.

First, there is the management and operations contract to run the federal corporation, but that’s chicken feed compared with the acquisition of casks, a site to store them, and the impressive truck and rail logistics that will be needed to move fuel stored at the nation’s 104 reactors to the interim storage site.

Second, while the nation’s utilities that have paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund are understandably hesitant about letting Congress allocate that money for anything less than a permanent repository, getting the used fuel off reactor sites is an important goal. Having a credible management entity, such as any of the global EPC firms that are capable of doing the work, is an added confidence builder.

Location, location, location

As to location for an interim storage site, a dry Western state makes the most sense, but most of the fuel is at reactors east of the Mississippi. Nevada is not a current candidate for the job. So, who will raise their hand to host one?

In the West, New Mexico, with its successful track record at WIPP, two defense-related national laboratories, and Urenco’s enrichment plant, seems to be comfortable with all things nuclear. Idaho would love to do long-term R&D on reprocessing and advanced fuels, but even under the gung-ho mandate of the now much maligned Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program, it could not step up to interim storage.

In the East, the Savannah River Site has shown moxie by establishing an energy park for proof of concept prototypes of small modular reactors. Also, Aiken, S.C., is home to the construction of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s MOX fuel facility that will convert 34 tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into the equivalent of 1700 PWR fuel assemblies for commercial reactors. Like New Mexico, South Carolina has shown no fear about handling nuclear technologies and materials.

Perhaps the nation will wind up with two interim storage sites. Who knows?

Regardless, a state that wants the site will do so for the jobs that will be created. The reason is that once the fuel starts coming to an interim storage site, it will never, ever stop.

Perhaps a decade or so from now, the nation may wake up and smell the coffee when it comes to energy security. If that change comes to pass, the reprocessing plant will likely be built next to the interim storage site. Here’s some advice—buy the land now.

# # #

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy. He is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Nuclear Waste Policy Recommendations from Blue Ribbon Commission

By Jim Hopf

On May 13, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released its draft conclusions and recommendations. Despite its more general sounding title, the commission’s work mostly concerned the nuclear waste issue. It was created by President Obama’s administration primarily to investigate alternatives to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, after the administration moved to shut that program down. While the commission did release some recommendations on other issues such as advanced reactors and Fukishima, this post will focus on its recommendations concerning nuclear waste policy.

Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations

A summary of the key conclusions and recommendations is as follows:

One or more geologic repositories must be sited and developed at some point.

  • No foreseeable future reactor and/or fuel cycle technology will avoid the need for at least one final repository.
  • There is scientific consensus that deep geologic disposal is the best option for final nuclear waste disposition.
  • The process for siting and developing the repository should be objective and scientific.
  • The performance standards for any repository should be set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (as they are now).
  • Repository siting should be consent-based, with all levels of government (federal, state, and local) involved in all parts of the process, from the very beginning.

One or more centralized interim storage sites for used fuel should be developed.

  • The fuel would be stored at these sites for up to ~100 years.
  • Such facilities should be developed and licensed using the same standards and methods used to develop a repository.
  • Decommissioned plants should be first in line to have their used fuel taken to a centralized storage facility.
  • There are, however, no technical or safety reasons why used fuel can not be stored at the plant sites, for a similar period.

There should be a sustained, federally supported R&D effort to develop advanced reactors and fuel cycles.

  • While not eliminating the need for at least one repository, such technology development can increase safety, reduce costs, improve resource utilization, and minimize proliferation risks.

A new, independent organization should be created to site and develop the repository and centralized storage facilities, along with any waste storage and transportation infrastructure.

  • The new organization would be more independent of the government (i.e., the Department of Energy).
  • It would have more institutional and programmatic stability.
  • The organization would have assured, steady access to the Nuclear Waste Fund to perform the necessary activities.

Any real answers–or just stalling?

All in all, there is not much in the way of new insights here. The recommendation for long-term used fuel storage (to allow the repository issue to be kicked down the road) was expected from the very beginning. They say that siting of repositories or centralized storage facilities should be consent based, but do not offer much new in terms of solving the (so far) intractable problem of getting such consent. The commission also doesn’t explain how or why it will be significantly less difficult to site centralized storage facilities than it was (or will be) to site a repository. History suggests that it won’t.

Yucca Mountain, north crest

Experience shows that problems with siting always occur at the state level. Many may be surprised to learn that such projects generally have support at the local level (from both the people and the government). As with nuclear power plants, Yucca Mountain enjoyed support in the local, rural communities. The reason for this is that the benefits to the local area, in terms of jobs and tax base, etc., are significant. On the state level, such benefits are much more diluted, but since there is only one repository in the United States, the state still feels singled out and put upon, and has fears of being stigmatized.

My understanding is that in Scandinavia—the one place where consent appears to have been obtained to build repositories—there is no “state” government, just federal and local. Is that a coincidence? I think not.

The one thing the commission recommends that tries to take a stab at the consent problem is the suggestion that the waste be handled by a new “objective” and “independent” organization. Over the years, some distrust has developed between some populations and the DOE (mainly in the West, due to weapons testing, etc.). Getting the DOE out of the picture could help somewhat, but I don’t see it fundamentally altering the situation described above.

The commission also does not do much to clarify any significant benefits of setting up centralized storage facilities, as opposed to just leaving the used fuel in storage at the plant sites. In addition to the significant cost of siting and developing the central storage facilities and moving the fuel there, the waste transport involved will generate significant political resistance. Why would anyone decide to spend a large amount of political capital to do this? As the commission itself states, the risks—and costs—of just keeping the fuel in dry storage at the plant sites is very low.

It appears (to me) that the main impetus behind the centralized storage idea is to appear to be “doing something” about the waste issue, now that the repository has been delayed by decades. My personal view is that this will not happen (due to the lack of any real justification), and the used fuel will remain stored at the plant sites.

Yucca Mountain

The fact that Yucca Mountain was not even considered by the Blue Ribbon Commission is unfortunate. In a highly critical recently released report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that the administration’s shutdown of the Yucca program was for purely political (as opposed to scientific or technical) reasons. The GAO also concludes that the Yucca decision will put us back to square one in terms of siting and developing a repository, which will result in decades of delay, as well as wasting most of the money spent so far on the program. It will also result in larger amounts of fuel being stored at plant sites, for much longer periods. For the above reasons, the GAO report recommended that the administration consider restarting the Yucca program.

Many other parties are also bitterly opposed to the abrupt and political termination of the Yucca program. Many assert that the DOE did not have the authority (under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act) to withdraw the Yucca license application, and that the NRC does not have the authority to stop the licensing review. Lawsuits have already been filed. Also, congressional investigations of the NRC and the DOE have started. There is a good chance that the DOE will be ordered to restart the program, or that the NRC will be ordered to finish the licensing process.

In addition to the issues identified by the GAO report, one of the main (if not THE main) impact of starting over on the repository is that it will allow one of the most potent arguments against nuclear energy to live on for decades. A large fraction of the public believes that the nuclear waste problem is intractable, and that there is no technological solution. This is not true. The Blue Ribbon Commission concurred (with the GAO) that the main obstacles to repository siting are political, as opposed to scientific. Despite scientific opinion, until a repository is sited and licensed, many people will continue to believe that there is no solution, which will result in significantly more opposition to new nuclear power plants, and more use of (truly damaging) fossil fuels in the future.

A possible compromise?

The concern raised above has me thinking about a possible compromise on Yucca that could be of some value. While I believe that proceeding with Yucca is the best option, another option (that would be far better than nothing) would be to have the NRC complete the licensing process (and approve the repository, presumably). The administration would then state that although Yucca has been shown to be an acceptable long-term solution, they believe that there are (even) better solutions (e.g., reprocessing) that should be pursued instead. To that end, the fuel will be stored for a few more decades while those other options are explored. If nothing pans out, there is always the (acceptable) Yucca option.

Such an approach would let Nevada get its way in terms of avoiding (or at least greatly delaying) the Yucca repository, but it may go a long way toward alleviating public concerns over the “intractable” nuclear waste problem. It’s possible that this could eliminate most of the opposition to nuclear that is due to waste concerns. Many would argue that Nevada would never go for such a deal, since NRC approval would carry too much political weight in terms of restarting the program. On the other hand, as I discussed earlier, the courts and/or congressional pressure/investigations may end up forcing the NRC to complete the licensing review anyway.

____________________________________________________

Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer at EnergySolutions, with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Nuclear Reactor Wall Chart Electronic Library

by Ulrich Decher

For those of us involved in the design of nuclear reactors in the 1970s and 1980s, it was fairly common to walk into somebody’s office and see a wall chart depicting the reactor that was being developed or serviced. These were foldout charts that were technically accurate. They were 3D renditions of the reactor, with cutouts showing the internals of the plant, and were made available by the magazine Nuclear Engineering International in the 1950s through the 1990s as inserts in the magazine. Now, several decades later, many of these charts were lost to the publisher due to the multitude of reorganizations and moves that have occurred.

Bradwell Nuclear Power Station

Ron Knief at Sandia National Laboratories had used many of these charts as educational tools during his career at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Sandia. He realized that using the same charts over and over led to some degradation of the hard copies, and he also realized that many would be lost as time went on.  So, he started a project of trying to gather as many of these charts as he could to preserve them as educational tools and for posterity.

The result is an electronic library of wallcharts (currently all 105 published by Nuclear Engineering International). It is maintained by UNM’s Centennial Engineering Library.

Wylfa Power Station (click to enlarge)

The resolution of these electronic charts is quite good. I was able to zoom in at 200-percent magnification with not much evidence of pixels. This allowed reading the fine print on the charts without difficulty. The publisher of the magazine retains the rights to reproduce larger (higher resolution) laminated charts for a fee.

Gösgen Nuclear Power Plant

Ron had collected about two dozen charts and was able to gather the others courtesy of librarians and friends at Sandia, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the magazine publisher, and Idaho National Laboratory. The latter provided about 60 of the charts that are now available electronically.

The hardcopy charts that Ron collected along the way—about 40 in all—are now in a separate archive at the UNM Library. He also has some charts from sources other than Nuclear Engineering International to be added to the collection after obtaining, he hopes, permission of the copyright owners. Readers who have materials to add to the electronic and/or hardcopy collections, please contact Ron Knief and help preserve both an interesting and an important part of nuclear industry history.

____________________________________________________

Decher

Ulrich Decher holds a PhD in nuclear engineering. He is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee and a contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

UT–Austin holds Texas Atomic Film Festival

The third annual Texas Atomic Film Festival (TAFF) was held on May 5, 2011, by the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. The 2011 TAFF featured seven films produced by students from UT–Austin as well as distance-learning students from Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa. The goal of the TAFF is to allow students to communicate technical subjects to their peers by using digital movie content.

Below is the 2011 TAFF award winner for best film: Everything I Wanted to Know About Radiation But Was Too Afraid to Ask.

Dr. Steven Biegalski is the professor for the nuclear engineering courses that participate in the TAFF, and he moderates the film festival. Juan Garcia, from the Faculty Innovation Center at UT–Austin, has assisted with the organization of this project and he plays a significant role in providing the infrastructure for students to complete their projects.

The full TAFF playlist can be found on YouTube at the official Cockrell School Channel. The “Texas Atomic Film Festival” playlist is located on the right hand side of the official site. Clicking the playlist link takes you to a listing of all the films from the past three years, with the top seven films listed being the most recent. The ANS Nuclear Cafe will be featuring several winning films from the film festival in the days ahead.

52nd Carnival of Nuclear Energy Bloggers

A collaborative effort celebrates a one-year milestone

It is ironic that cooperation among North American pro-nuclear energy bloggers would mark the first year of their operation in the middle of the Japanese crisis at Fukushima.  Nuclear energy bloggers talk to each other all the time.  It is one of the most intense online dialogs on the subject available in the English language.  Fukushima has pushed the envelope of subject matter in the blogsphere as well as responses to the mainstream news media.

In 2008 there were perhaps half a dozen pro-nuclear blogs active in North America.  Today, three years later, there are at least three times that number.   Most of them participate in the weekly carnival.  The carnival features blog posts from the leading North American nuclear bloggers and is a roundup of featured content from them.

This week there is continuing news from Fukushima, but there are also a diverse set of posts on nuclear energy topics. If you want to hear the voice of the nuclear renaissance, the Carnival of Nuclear Energy Blogs is where to find it. Contrary to what the anti-nuclear crowd would like you to believe, the wheels have not come off the renaissance.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at NEI Nuclear Notes, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NuclearGreen, CoolHandNuke, and, Idaho Samizdat, as well as several other popular nuclear energy blogs.

If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog, and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brian Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation. This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support. Please post a Tweet, a Facebook entry, or a link on your Web site or blog to support the carnival.

New York Times buries the hatchet at the NRC

It isn’t often that the independent-minded nuclear bloggers in the U.S. line up to aim their rhetorical fire power at the same article in the mainstream media.  It takes a lot to provoke a focus on a common target.  However, when they do, it is time to pay attention. This was the case this week as three of the nation’s leading  nuclear blogs responded to an unbalanced article published in the New York Times.

At Rod Adams Atomic Insights, he notes that it is ironic the New York Times portrays NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko as something of a white knight fixing a broken agency.  Jaczko, who once worked for the arch-druid of the anti-nuclear movement, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), now finds himself explaining his agency’s actions to his former colleagues.

At Meredith Angwin’s Yes Vermont Yankee, she walks through NYT reporter Tom Zeller’s one-sided reporting point by point.  It’s more than just a case of “he said / she said.” It is holding the newspaper accountable for its hatchet job on the NRC.  Angwin writes . . .

“The article is one-sided and mostly quotes people who are associated with the Union of Concerned Scientist. It is really no surprise that Tom Zeller has left the New York Times and joined the Huffington Post, where this type of one-sided journalism will get more scope.”

At Dan Yurman’s Idaho Samizdat, he writes the New York Times deserves criticism for its handling of the charge of conflict of interest put against NRC Commissioner William Magwood.

There is no indication the newspaper spoke with Magwood about the claim made by Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Ms. Brian told the newspaper her group feels Magwood’s industry experience would prevent him from acting independently in matters that came before the NRC.

Yurman writes, “The newspaper’s failure to give Magwood an opportunity to respond to the charge from POGO is an unfortunate departure from the standards of ethics and fairness the newspaper claims to uphold.”

George Monbiot is another environmentalist for nuclear energy

George Monbiot

In another example of independent nuclear bloggers pointing to the same interesting content on the Internet, both Atomic Insights and Nuclear Green ask readers to pay attention to the writings of George Monbiot at the Guardian. (right)

Rod Adams writes at Atomic Insights that George Monbiot has recently published some thought provoking articles about the dilemmas facing people who are focused on protecting the natural environment.

Charles Barton writes at Nuclear Green that Monbiot worries that environmentalism is at war with itself conflicted over technologies and beliefs without having rigorous examined the basis for its commitments to either.

Here are some examples cited by Adams and Barton . . .

You think you’re discussing technologies, you quickly discover that you’re discussing belief systems. The battle among environmentalists over how or whether our future energy is supplied is a cipher for something much bigger: who we are, who we want to be, how we want society to evolve.

Beside these concerns, technical matters – parts per million, costs per megawatt hour, cancers per sievert – carry little weight. We choose our technology – or absence of technology – according to a set of deep beliefs; beliefs which in some cases remain unexamined.

What the nuclear question does is to concentrate the mind about the electricity question. Decarbonising the economy involves an increase in infrastructure. Infrastructure is ugly, destructive and controlled by remote governments and corporations.

These questions are so divisive because the same worldview tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business. The four objectives are at odds.

FPL says twin new reactors at Turkey Point are economical
NEI Nuclear Notes
– Dave Bradish
Even with a huge glut of gas in the country, new nuclear is still found to be economical. FPL’s latest filings on the need for two more nuclear units at its Turkey Point station will provide big savings that include “fuel cost savings for FPL’s customers of approximately $1.07 billion (nominal) in the first full year of operation” and a reduction in “C02 emissions by an estimated 287 million tons over the life of the project.”

Fractured education about energy
ANS Nuclear Cafe – Suzy Hobbs
Our energy policy, or lack thereof, is a result of our fractured education about energy. Rethinking how we communicate with the public, via education and popular culture, are just as important as research and development and licensing.

Japan boost support for stronger nuclear regulatory functions
Nukepower Talk – Gail Marcus
Marcus comments on the Atomic Energy Society of Japan recommendation for the nuclear regulatory functions in Japan to be consolidated into one independent agency.  Having served as the US NRC liaison to the regulatory arm of MITI in 1992, I can attest to the situation they describe and I endorse their recommendation.

Radiation Dose and Cancer Risks: Some Numbers
Phronesisaical – Cheryl Rofer
Translating the radiation numbers we see in the newspapers into effects on our health is difficult and laced with many if’s, and’s, and but’s. Cheryl Rofer digs through BEIR VII, the report that is the basis for American regulatory judgements on radiation risk, to find some numbers. This post is part of a continuing series in trying to make those radiation numbers more understandable.

Cook Hand Nuke
Six reactors no waiting
Three major utilities confirm plans are on track for construction. Every time an anti-nuclear group talks about the Japanese crisis at Fukushima, in the next breath they proclaim the death of the nuclear renaissance in the U.S. This claim is wrong as to the facts and wrong-headed with regard to the nation’s need for carbon emission free energy.

It seems almost like Fukushima has created a case of temporary amnesia about the value of nuclear energy to meet the twin challenges of global warming and energy security.  Did we all get hit with a falling coconut?

In recent weeks several nuclear utilities have stepped up to remind their investors and the public about the realities of the nation’s energy mix and why nuclear reactors have a place in it.

Atomic Power ReviewWill Davis
Salt in the wound at Fukushima
This writer wonders about the early statements by GE, and the NRC, that there might be as much as 50 tons of salt accumulated inside the pressure vessel at No. 1 plant. This seems to have been either forgotten or omitted in much of the present commentary.

Given that most scenarios for long-term SBO include failure of the core support and dropping of the core to the bottom of the vessel, it’s certainly plausible that this has happened. Perhaps, though, we should begin to wonder if this melted fuel material is encased in salt.. or sitting in a large mass of salt at the bottom of the pressure vessel. Perhaps, in fact, early core melt did actually cause some failures at the lower vessel head which was then plugged by the salt deposits. All of this is highly speculative.

Thorium MSR – Rick Maltese
Deregulate the atom blog
This is a call to action to the pro nuclear advocates. For all the energy that they put out for the cause of promoting nuclear energy, much of that energy would have a greater impact if it were directed outside the circle of the already converted. Promoting a carbon free technology as well as opposing the backlash of irrational fears over the Fukushima event is essential in order to enable nuclear energy to become the leading power source for our future needs.

ThoriumMSR blog
The Blue Ribbon Commission on Nuclear Waste was appointed during the most tumultuous politically charged periods in American history. The pressure from various senators and members of the house are potentially a disruptive force to enabling objective and forward thinking recommendations. The future of our ecosystem could depend a lot on the outcome of the BRC on Nuclear Waste reports.

U.S. Areva Blog
Recycling should be Option for Managing America’s Used Fuel
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future holds today its final public meeting before issuing draft recommendations for managing used nuclear fuel. One of their major considerations in shaping the policy of our energy future will be to decide whether to strategically view the 60,000 metric tons (plus 2,000 metric tons annually) of used U.S. nuclear fuel as waste, or as a significant recyclable energy resource, and whether that resource is commercially viable.

Next Big Future – Brian Wang
Covering Fukushima
Tepco will install giant polyester covers over the Fukushima reactors.  Giant polyester covers will soon be placed around the damaged reactor buildings at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex to help contain the release of radioactive substances into the atmosphere, the plant operator said Friday.

NASA’s nuclear powered robots to Mars

Conceptual design: NASA's nuclear power generator may go to Mars

Two of the robotic missions NASA selected for further study last week would bepowered by experimental nuclear generators. NASA picked robotic missions to Mars, a comet and Saturn’s moon Titan as finalists last week for a launch opportunity in 2016, and two of the probes would employ a cutting edge nuclear power source never tested in space.

Probes to Titan and comet Wirtanen, a small object composed of a mix of rock and ice, would be powered by Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generators on their journeys into the outer solar system. The nuclear power units, called ASRGs, use less plutonium than existing generators.

Unlike Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, which have powered satellites and probes for nearly 50 years, the ASRG has the added complexity of moving parts.

But each ASRG creates between 130 and 140 watts of electricity with 1 kilogram, or about 2.2 pounds, of plutonium-238. More than four times more plutonium would be required to generate the same power in an existing RTG

The deadly side of energy technologies

Time Magazine blog refers to my death per twh article, and California Occupational health has tracked at least four deaths related to solar installation. Meanwhile coal easily laps the field in evil and danger. 14 killed at Mexican coal mine and the Coal industry pushes bills for less safety regulation and to delay pollution controls that would save tens of thousands of Americans

Nuclear power is globally scalable

Many nuclear reactors can be situated on the same piece of land. Most of the land can be used for other purposes. There is no reason it cannot be used for many other purposes other than housing people. If nuclear power replaced coal then the large land areas of coal plants can be repurposed for nuclear power.

China connects second indigenous design reactor to the grid

The second unit at China’s Ling Ao II nuclear power plant has been connected to the grid. The 1080 MWe Chinese-designed CPR-1000 pressurised water reactor (PWR) was synchronised with the grid on 3 May. It is now undergoing final tests prior to commercial operation which is scheduled to begin on 15 June, exactly five years after construction formally began. The reactor is the second CPR-1000 to start up, following its sister plant Ling Ao II unit 1, which entered commercial operation in September 2010. 17 CPR-1000s already under construction. Work is planned to begin on at least five more during 2011.

# # #

Post Fukushima, Germany and Italy lead retreat from nuclear energy

Russia and Turkey say not so fast

By Dan Yurman

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under attack by the Green Party for her nuclear energy policies

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be forced to abandon her plan to save the nation’s 17 nuclear reactors from early retirement following a surge in voter support for the anti-nuclear Green Party. Last year Merkel issued a policy directive extending the operational lifetime of the reactors by eight-to-twelve years.

On March 14, just three days after the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, she imposed a 90-day moratorium on life extension for seven of the oldest reactors. Her political opponents among the Social Democrats want to permanently close them.

Italy seeks to avoid repeating an emotional response

In Italy the government on March 23 approved a moratorium of at least one year in its plans to build as many as five nuclear reactors. The country stopped development of new reactors in 1988 and decommissioned the four units that were in service. The nation has since come to regret the decision, having some of the highest electricity rates in Europe.

Italy’s minister of economic development, Paolo Romani, told Italian wire services that the 12-month hiatus will give the country the opportunity to make “calm informed” decisions about nuclear energy and not get swept up in the “emotions of the moment” over Fukushima.

Italy had been making progress developing its nuclear energy program with an eye on achieving a greater degree of security for electricity. The previous economic development minister, however, lost his job over an unrelated real estate scandal. The program was already losing momentum under the current government prior to the March 11 Fukushima event. It is likely that a new election with a new prime minister could lead to a renewed commitment to nuclear energy.

Russian reactor development will not be hindered

Dimitry Medvedev, Russian president

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took the opposite view. In a statement released on April 15, he said that the nuclear crisis in Japan should not be used as an excuse to hinder the development of nuclear energy.

He called for international safety standards and quicker international response mechanisms in the event of an emergency. This last statement was seen as an implied criticism of Japan, which some say waited too long to ask for help from other nations as the crisis snowballed at the six-reactor Fukushima site.

“Catastrophes should not stop human progress, but they should be used to make proper conclusions,” Medvedev said.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s state-owned nuclear agency Rosatom, said that he would continue to seek customers for export of Russia’s VVER LWR reactor design. In recent years, Rosatom has signed contracts with Vietnam, India, and Turkey.

Turkey announces third reactor site

On April 6, Turkey announced that despite the international uproar over the Fukushima crisis, it would build its third nuclear power plant 12 miles from the Bulgarian border. This seacoast site is seen as a reach by Turkey to become a regional exporter of electricity to Bulgaria.

Russia has a previous agreement to build four 1000-MW VVER reactors at the Akkuky site on the Mediterranean coast. A second plant is planned for a site at Sinop on Turkey’s Black Sea coastline. Tenders for that plant are still out with Japan, Russia, and Areva seeking to win the work.

It isn’t clear who would be in line to build the new reactor(s) at the third site. Turkey has a pattern of mercurial behavior when it comes to awarding contracts of this size, and it has been unwilling to step up to assume some of the financial risks.

South Korea walked away from negotiations over the Sinop site when Turkey refused to guarantee electricity sales at profitable rates for the first 15 years of operations and to allow sale of the reactor at the 15-year mark to Turkish investors. The Russians sought and got both of these elements in their deal for the Akkuky site, which involves four reactors.

Siemens having second thoughts about its nuclear future

Back in Germany, engineering giant Siemens is reported to be having second thoughts about becoming a significant vendor to the global nuclear industry. The firm’s chief financial officer, Joe Kaeser, told a German newspaper on April 15 that the firm is doing some soul searching, but he declined to say what action the firm might take as a result.

Siemens has already pulled out of its joint venture with Areva, in part due to disputes regarding liability for cost overruns at a reactor under construction in Finland. Siemens had been reported to be interested in developing a new relationship to supply turbines and other plant equipment to Russia’s Rosatom.

Since then, Siemens completed its sale of its 34-percent stake in Areva’s nuclear business for a payment of (euro) 1.62 billion (about U.S.$2.31 billion).

The company’s nuclear future may be in doubt as Germany is appearing to quickly exit the nuclear energy field. Also, Siemens is reportedly restructuring itself to focus on wind turbines, solar power plants, and smart grids. These “green investments” are seen as being in conflict with nascent plans to lash up with Russia on new reactor projects.

Smart grid needed for renewables strategy

Germany has indicated that it will ramp up investment in alternative energy sources, but a key problem that remains unresolved is that opposition to new power lines and wind parks is almost as tenacious to them as it is to life extension for the reactors.

Another problem that Germany faces is a gap in electricity supply, since the new solar and wind power projects will also need new natural gas plants and imports of coal-fired power from other countries to keep the existing power lines humming. The shift away from nuclear power could cost German ratepayers up to two billion euros/year until new baseload supplies of electricity can be brought on line.

Longer term, Germany may become another “colonial” nuclear power, buying it from the Temelin project in the Czech Republic. There, Czech utility CEZ plans to build up to five reactors at two sites, with Germany’s “power gap” being a primary market driver for the $25-billion project.

The result of this scenario is that while the German Greens and the Social Democrats will be satisfied with having closed the nation’s nuclear power plants, other unintended consequences may cause German voters to have second thoughts about abandoning their reactors too quickly.

____________

 

Yurman

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy, and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe